A moment of reflection on a beach recently, in the presence of turbulent weather, gave me an insight into the more primal aspects of my processes. I was contemplating a recent development in my life, which brings both great joy and great doubt and concern.
I noticed that the waves had a particularly powerful energy, like some unseen hand thrashing around in the murky depths, causing friction and disquiet on the surface. It looked like I felt. Deep currents of foreboding and uncertainty, breaking into the light from a realm in me that seems unknowable.
Somehow I took great comfort from this experience. Maybe nature affirming my present orientation, assuring me that, come what may, I am where I need to be.
I love the Buddhist idea that Samsara, the cycle of birth and suffering and Nirvana, ultimate reality are essentially one and the same. The travails of the suffering realms are said to be like ripples on the great ocean of the unconditioned. Facilitating the conversion of anguish and confusion into wisdom and happiness.
One of the things I love about my home town is how close we are to the hills. When I have a day to myself I love to pack some food and drink in my rucksack and spend a whole day walking them slowly all on my own, just existing in the present moment. When I do this, I feel absorbed in nature and very conscious of the Buddha. A few years ago, on a summer’s day, I set off to do just that. But on the day I’d made my plans, an unexpected fog had closed in on the hills. I felt cheated and irritated. Where was the wide open vista around me which I always found so moving? How could I immerse myself in the profound and sacred nature of the landscape when I could barely see more than a few metres of it at any one time? But as I walked along the familiar path, I began to notice different things. Instead of the whole landscape being revealed to me all at once, I was encountering it in what felt like a series of rooms that the fog had created. I was forced to slow not just my pace but my perception and really appreciate what I encountered at each step instead of having my eyes on the horizon. At this point I had to chuckle at my foolish nature and admit that my attachment to the sort of day I had planned to have was getting in the way of enjoying the day I was going to have. Instead of the majestic spaciousness of the hills and the far reaching land on either side, I was being invited to rejoice in the smaller and more immediate things. The way the trees were melting towards me out of the mist like an Impressionist painting. The eerie way the spider webs were hung with mist droplets. The way the mist changed the way sound travels, making the journey through the landscape seem more intimate. The drops of moisture that hung all over the leaves and twigs like jewels, bringing to mind some descriptions of the Pureland. In the end, I still had a beautiful and healing experience walking the hills that day. There were several lessons I could have taken away from it: the self-sabotaging nature of attachment, my Bombu nature, or the impermanence of both good and bad weather. But what I felt most in my heart at the end of that day was trust. Trust that my personal meditative walks will always bring me healing provided I don’t let my preconceptions get in the way. Trust that the sun was still there beyond the fog just as we trust that Amida Buddha is there even when the metaphorical clouds of delusion get in the way. Namo Amida Bu.
Compassion is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy, often referred to as Metta. The word is from Pali and means positive energy and kindness toward others. This should always be part of the practice of anyone wanting to live the Buddhist life.
My work is with a charity in Birmingham, we offer support to people with mental health problems and give them the tools they need to recover and get on with their lives. My role is participation, I love my work and find it rewarding. To work with people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. I’m not being egotistical when I say that I feel I’m good at my job, but believe I do make a difference to many people. Recently I’ve been getting various ideas from one of the people I work with. A man who receives services and has become more involved. He can be quite negative about our working practices and to a certain extent has annoyed me. To be truthful I thought it would be so much easier if he just stopped complaining about things and looked a little more positively at what we do. Then I remembered something one of my Buddhist teachers once told me, a koan, he said when I sat telling him about all the wonderful ideas I had of working with some homeless people. Do they want this then? He told me tge story of a man and his daughter in China, they had been to a nearby well and collected water for the family and we’re carrying it home on their shoulders. The older man fell, tge buckets spilling and him lying on the floor. He looked up T his daughter and stretched out his hand. @help me up” he said to her. With that the daughter threw her water on the ground and fell on the ground next to her father. The question to think about why did she do this? How would she understand the help her father needs without seeing the situation from his perspective.
So after reflection on this I thought of the service user and his complaints. What makes him complain, past experience of not being listened to? A true desire to make a change for his peers? So is it about attacking me or my organisation? Or about his needs. I’ve asked him for a meeting and have reassured him that I want his valuable participation. The meeting will be about how we can support him and how we can make things better from his opinion. May not be able to do all he wants, but I’ve listened and tried to give him guidance. I will do what I can to show love and kindness. In keeping with my practice and using love and kindness to guide me rather than ego and delusions.
Dharma Glimpse by Maria Chumak
A colleague of mine once said that everybody was entitled to one big phobia in their lives. My husband Steve is petrified of snakes. My phobia is deep waters.
I can’t swim (not properly anyway) and I’m absolutely terrified of drowning. My parents say this has actually nothing to do with water as such, but with a severe respiratory illness I had as a child, one I could have died of, had I not been brought to the hospital in time. So my brain manifested a fear of suffocating as a fear of drowning. I forced myself into a swimming school in my 20s to face it and they did teach me the basics, but in a way made my fear even worse. When all my friends went holidaying to the seaside, I’d hide away mountain hiking. I do appreciate the irony of the Universe in that I moved from landlocked mainland to live on an island - I used to get chills when flying over the Channel on a plane!
However, once moving here I made it my task to get to know the Sea. My relationship with it was complex - I admired its power and the vital role in pretty much all life and the ecosystem of our planet, and it also is just so gorgeously beautiful. But I was still petrified! So I travelled to various beaches around the country, from highly cultivated to the remote places in Wales, the little gaps in the cliffs you can only get to in low tide and with certain climbing skills. I went to the edge of the water, making deep breaths, and looked at the Sea. I listened to it. I learned about the tides and to anticipate the weather changes. It eventually culminated with me ending up in Aberystwyth during one nasty storm in 2020 just before the first lockdown, with 90 mph gales and waves all over the promenade. (You can see the photos attached!)
What I realise now, being by the Sea again at the moment in Pembrokeshire, is that our phobia should not be a Nemesis - it is in fact an opportunity to learn. Why do we fear what we fear? Can we mitigate it, turn it around? Can the irrational part be tuned down with more knowledge of the subject (like I never head out to wild beach walks without checking tide times)? In the end of the day fear is what we bring with us, it is inside us and not out there in this thing that we fear. I often meditate upon my fear and learn that there is a part of me that gets more and more fascinated with its subject, almost as if a part of me used to deny a whole raft of experiences because of it. Even though I still can’t swim!
Namo Amida Bu 🙏
These lines from the 12 step, step 3 prayer, move me deeply. It recently occurred to me that when I say the nembutsu, the essence of this prayer shines through. Namo… I surrender myself… Amida… to a loving, all accepting power… Buddha… which is beyond my small contracted self. Today is a good day!
‘When life brings you to your knees, you are in the perfect position to pray’ (Rumi) is something I’ve found to be completely true. Every depth that I’ve been to has been necessary to enable me to surrender. To surrender my view that I can control life, to surrender who I thought I was up to that point, to surrender because I no longer had the strength to cling to the riverbank whilst the river of life flowed onward towards the sea. Every time I let go of the bank I realised that the river would carry me, that I was held by an infinite presence of which I wasn’t separate, for I was also part of the river. Just as the support and acceptance from my Teachers and Fellow Travellers was always there I had simply convinced myself that it wasn’t, so all I had to do was let this greater love in. Staying in touch with this truth, is an ongoing practise for me… Partially forgetting and then Re-membering this presence as a ‘member’ of my being and my being as a ‘member’ of them.
Similarly through my work, I see that the more attentively people can listen to the murmurs of their soul, the more their life gains a sense of meaning, alignment and support. There seems to be something inherently guiding and true about this Presence. And as the Buddha said ‘just as the mighty ocean has one taste, the taste of salt, so my teachings have but one taste, the taste of freedom.’
I was in a small supermarket with my partner – I wanted a sandwich before I headed off for an evening study group and he was getting food for him and our son to have dinner. I had a very small amount of money left in my bank account before payday. I wanted to buy some chocolate but could only afford the sandwich. He didn’t know any of that, I kept it to myself. Coincidentally, and out of the blue, he offered to pay for my food. It was an everyday kindness and something he’s good at. But instead of saying ‘thank you’, enjoying the moment and the kindness, I found myself saying ‘well, if you’re paying for my food I’ll get some chocolate too’. Leaving him at the till putting the shopping through, I rushed up the aisle to grab the chocolate. I did, of course, say thank you… but I was quite overwhelmed with the speed with which my mind had grasped. Habit and craving are strong, and my addiction to chocolate is one I regularly struggle with. Amongst all this I could hear the Buddha whispering to me ‘slow down, there are gifts here for you that you are missing’. Sometimes I miss out on the abundance I already have when I’m grasping for more. The chocolate was nice, but in many ways, the kindness was much much sweeter.
I’ve been feeling a bit low in spirits for the past couple of weeks. I’ve done something to my knee – or perhaps I haven’t done anything in particular and maybe it’s just an age thing – and it’s been really sore and uncomfortable, which has meant I haven’t been able to get out walking as much as I’d like. So today, in order to lift my spirits, I’ve been sitting in the garden.
My garden is one of my very favourite places to be. The lawn is more moss and weeds than grass. My green fingers are a very pale shade of green and a few of the plants I put in the border last year have unfortunately not survived, but to me the garden is wonderful and my private sanctuary. Let me paint you a picture. The garden is dominated by two beautiful trees: a majestic weeping willow and a beautiful old apple tree that provides us with a huge crop of apples every year without fail. The blossom on the apple tree is opening up nicely and the late afternoon air is heavy with its sweet fragrance. Bees buzz busily amongst the branches. Our visiting blackbird sits in the willow, singing its complex and beautiful song, a voice so sweet it makes the heart sing too. Timothy the cat lazes at my feet on the patio, occasionally stirring himself sufficiently to swipe at a dried leaf as it tumbles past in the breeze; his friend Sam, always such a happy soul, sits amongst the border plants and purrs contentedly to himself. Some of the plants in the border are starting to open up their flowers and I see spots of white, pink, orange and purple in the fresh green foliage.
Whilst I’ve been laid up with my poorly knee, I’ve been re-reading the Smaller Pureland Sutra and enjoying the rich, sumptuous descriptions of the Pure Land, full of gorgeous sights, sounds and aromas to delight the senses and calm the spirit. Many people think of the Pure Land, or Sukhavati, as a place we go to after death. As I sit here in my garden, I can’t help thinking that it would be such a pity to be so focussed on the Pure Land (or God’s Kingdom, or Heaven, or whatever else you may wish to call it) as something we reach only after death, and thereby miss the opportunity to discover Sukhavati in our life now. For me, here in my own small paradise of a garden, I know I can touch the Pure Land every day in the beauty and peace of this blessed place.
As part of last year’s Bodhi Day I sat with fellow sangha members and Extinction Rebellion activists at a regular vigil for the Earth in the middle of my home town. Round our necks we wore the placards that said ‘in Love and Grief for the Earth.’
At some point during the hour I sat there, I leaned into the Malvern stone façade of the wall beside me and suddenly experienced a profound and physical sense of what two elements of that phrase meant to me –even if not actually in the order they were written on my chest.
First of all I felt acutely the separation of those stones from their bedrock only a few miles away where they had developed over deep time and remained undisturbed – until humans tore them from the hills with destructive tools and probably dynamite. People far more knowledgeable than I am about Earth Mysteries posit that the history of quarrying leaves a psychic scar on the land. I thought about that and found myself apologising to those stones for their violent relocation.
And then I realised I was on familiar territory. Here was a lesson to me in the pervasiveness of dukkha – that to build something required damage to something else, that there was an inevitability about that and that, as always, I needed to find a way of sitting with this and accepting it.
And then I had a second experience of the Earth that those stones represented. As their coolness seeped into my shoulder and maybe a tiny part of my human warmth seeped into them, I was reminded that stones can also represent connection. In recent years it has become increasingly popular to paint stones and either gift them or leave them for people to find. One of our former temple residents is very well known for this locally!
I have a pebble that was painted for me by a dear friend and former boss. She did one for each of her staff before she left. Though she is not herself a Buddhist she researched Buddhist art before painting a mandala on one side of the pebble for me and telling me to carry it with me to help me feel grounded when I needed it.
Such stones can represent many images and ideas, but the underlying theme is that the givers and receivers care about each other and want to connect. And we use a small part of the Earth as our medium to do so. In doing so, we bear witness to our universal connection, or love, just as the Buddha did in reaching down and touching the Earth on the morning of his Enlightenment.
Which brings me back, full circle, to what made me choose to sit on those steps in the middle of town on a December afternoon.
Somebody asked me recently about the nature of enlightenment. I had to think quite hard before I answered. Because it’s quite a complicated question and the answer has layers and nuances.
Of course, what I associate most strongly with enlightenment is the image of Shakyamuni Buddha, deep in meditation, underneath a tree, glowing with the Dharma, radiating out wisdom and compassion. Or Amitabah Buddha, arms outstretched in a gesture of warm, unconditional acceptance.
But I don’t think that’s necessarily the whole story.
I think that, for some, enlightenment can be momentary clarity or temporary understanding, a glimpse of some depth in the world which normally escapes their attention. It is not reserved for the pious or erudite and is arguably in better hands in the ordinary person for whom it offers a unique perspective on life, the universe and the way things really are.
For me, regular spiritual practice is key to understanding the nature and importance of enlightenment.
I would say that, given the balance of deep positive change in my life and the persistence of my human nature, I only really know enlightenment to the extent that I have understood the importance of spiritual practice enough, that I have put it at the centre of my life and my priorities.
So, maybe for me, enlightenment and practice are inseparable. Enlightenment is practice and practice is enlightenment. Maybe this is as simple or complicated as it ever needs to be.